STORY BY RYAN PEPPER
The idea for The Veterans Kayak Football HOF Challenge began after learning of the theft of kayaks from the Cincinnati chapter of Team River Runner (TRR) and hearing of another local TRR chapter shutting down due to difficulty connecting with local veterans. Wanting to help their cause, and understanding the value of kayaking for people with disabilities, I contacted the head of the Northeast Ohio Chapter of TRR, Justin Jeffers, to learn more about this organization. He invited me up to a pool session and for an hour or more I watched about eight veterans having a blast playing kayak football. After the pool session, Justin, a couple of the veterans and I were talking about how cool it would be to get a bunch of veterans together to play a kayak football tournament. In a parking lot, on a cold March day, the Veterans Kayak Football HOF Challenge was created.
The idea took off immediately and created much buzz and excitement among kayakers, veterans, and people who wanted to help out with the event. After considering several locations, I approached the community of Willowdale Lake in Stark County, Ohio. This community embraced the idea, without understanding a single thing about kayak football, and agreed to host the event. We were going to play kayak football in Canton, Ohio, on the same day as the Pro Football Hall of Fame would open their preseason just up the road.
On Sunday, August 9, it all came together. The purpose of the tournament was to honor our veterans in a fun and unique way, while at the same time exposing a whole new audience to the larger world of kayaking, water sports, and the benefits gained through adaptive paddling. Many of the veterans who participated had disabilities including, paralysis, blindness, missing limbs, and PTSD; though you couldn’t tell when they were in their kayaks and charging for the ball! The veterans came in from six states and from as far away as North Carolina. We had eight teams, set up in two divisions, and played a round robin tournament of three games each, in two Olympic pool size fields set up in the lake. We then played a championship game that featured the TRR team from Walter Reed Hospital versus Team RamRod from the TRR chapter in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Ultimately, the Walter Reed team was crowned the 2015 champion in a tightly contested 4 to 3 final score.
I believe we accomplished the goals we set out to do. We welcomed over 40 veterans to participate in the first ever Veterans Kayak Football HOF Challenge. Everyone present honored our veterans and had their eyes opened to a much larger paddling world. For me, and many of the people there, it was much more than that. The tournament was the a great example of the power of paddling. The power to bring people together from all walks of life, the power to make people laugh and have fun, and the power to heal the human spirit.
As our Interim Grand Poobah of Veterans Kayak Football (that is Team River Runner’s Joe Mornini) would say: “We put a lot of butts in boats today and that’s always a good thing”. Thanks Joe – Couldn’t have done it without you.